Why Vacations Shouldn’t Be a Perk
While it’s conventionally frowned upon to ask about vacation policy during a job interview process, when we’re with our friends celebrating the offer with drinks, the question comes up: “How much vacation do you get?” (I think that question comes from the same place in our brain that prompts us to say, “Let’s see the ring!” when engagements are announced.)
Here’s the difference between that engagement ring and vacation time: The engagement ring is a nice to have. Vacation time for your employees is a must have. That is if you want physically healthy employees, with the stamina and innovative mental bandwidth to bring new ideas to a safe workplace and then act on them with confidence and a positive outlook. For that reason, vacation time should not be considered a perk. It should be considered a requirement.
This photo is printed with the kind permission of the author’s sister-in-law, Christine Cervenka Finney, who spent a 10-day vacation in South Florida the summer of 2016.
This shift in approach to vacation time is so essential to the health and well-being of a company’s business interests, it should be driven by the highest most strategic HR leader in the company. It’s not about the days budgeted for vacation time – or worse, paid time off, which lumps everything together, so if you’re sick for more than a few days, there goes that roadtrip with the kids. It’s about the benefits that rested, restored, resilient employees bring to the company’s goals.
How vacations are treated in the workplace varies among companies across the United States – sometimes driven by state law, sometimes driven by the organizational belief in the value that vacations bring to the company. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, over 60% of small to mid-sized companies have a “use it or lose it” policy when it comes to accrued leave. And then there is that new monster trend, PTO, which independent-minded HR leaders and consultants will confidentially tell you is an employee rip-off plan. But then you have more progressive attitudes in support of time set aside exclusively and most emphatically for fun and relaxing getaways.
One association (not coincidentally the U.S. Travel Association) has put its money where its mouth is. It believes in the critical importance of vacation so much that it actually pays its employees a cash bonus for taking all their vacation time. So you get your vacay and $500 extra to boot! Way to pay for next year’s umbrella drinks.
Another organization, a hard-grinding logistics company in Chicago, recognized that the people in their commission-only sales division were skipping vacations altogether. Actually it was the manager of the division who noticed this and brought it to the executive team's attention (an essential detail). The valued employees of a high-stress department were risking further burn-out because they were skipping their time off to unwind and recharge. Why? Because when they’re gone from the phones, they’re not making money. The executive team and CEO immediately found the solution: They promised these valued high performers an income that equaled the average of their daily sales commission rate if they would just get out of the office and go on vacation!
Why is it a pertinent detail that the manager brought it to the C-Suite’s attention? Because employees commonly believe that managers disapprove of direct reports taking their vacation time. And so, they don’t. Which then negatively impacts on the company in healthcare costs, attraction/retention, productivity, workplace safety, innovation, and the company’s overall brand as a great employer to work for.
Making a Business Case for Vacations
In their June 24, 2016 Harvard Business Review article, “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure,” Shawn Achor and his research partner Michelle Gielan wrote, “The very lack of a recovery period is dramatically holding back our collective ability to be resilient and successful. Research has found that there is a direct correlation between lack of recovery and increased incidence of health and safety problems. And lack of recovery – whether by disrupting sleep with thoughts of work or having continuous cognitive arousal by watching our phones – is costing our companies $62 billion a year in lost productivity.”
The flip side, they report, is that their research shows that employees who take all their time off not only increased their productivity but also boost their likelihood of promotion.
It hardly seems necessary to build a case for encouraging employees to take their vacations. You don’t have to be a statistician to know that a period of quality rest and recovery repairs the minds and spirits of any human being. The old expression, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” can be easily amended to “makes Jack an expensive employee, non-productive, perhaps actively disengaged (which carries with it its own expensive hazards), dangerously distracted, and maybe even in the hospital.”
This isn’t hyperbole. Men who don’t take regular vacations are 32% more likely to die of heart attacks. Women have a 50% higher risk and are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression than their vacationing coworkers.
A University of Maryland study of 46,000 employees showed that stressed or depressed staffers generated 147% higher health care costs than their happier coworkers. One would typically consider obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and lack of exercise, to be the star players in high health care costs. But these characteristics only raised health care costs by only 21 percent or less.
According to a 2007 BusinessWeek article, “vacation deprivation” is a key reason why workers make more mistakes, and experience anger and resentment at co-workers. Additionally an Air New Zealand study showed an 82% increase in job performance post-trip. A key ingredient in increased performance is a significant change of scenery, combined with unplugging from all things work-related for extended periods of time.
On the positive side, Achor writes in his 2010 book, The Happiness Advantage, that “happy workers have higher levels of productivity, produce higher sales, perform better in leadership positions, and receive higher performance ratings and higher pay. They also enjoy more job security and are less likely to take sick days, to quit, or to become burned out. Happy CEOs are more likely to lead teams of employees who are both happy and healthy and who find their work climate conducive to high performance.”
Millennials Suffer Vacation Deprivation Most
If you believe that your employees are reliably taking all their vacation time, you might want to double check your records. According to statistics from Project Time Off (a group within the U.S. Travel Association, with a clever acronym), workplace cultural attitude toward vacations is largely driven by how employees believe their managers to support the practice of getting away. There is $224 billion tied up in accumulated vacation time in the U.S. private sector. And annually the U.S. workforce forfeits $53.4 billion in time off benefits. Why? Because they believe that taking vacation time is detrimental to their careers. According to PTO, 55% of Americans leave 658 million vacation days on the table every year.
This trend seems to hit the Millennial generation particularly hard, not a characteristic you would expect from a group typically defined as an entitled generation. Of the ten reasons presented in a PTO survey to employees from all generations, Millennials were consistently the highest group to identify with the reasons why they forfeited vacation time last year:
|Return to a mountain of work:
|No one else can do the job:
|Cannot financially afford the vacation:
|Taking time off is more difficult when you want to grow:
|Want to show complete dedication:
|Don’t want to be seen as replaceable:
|Don’t want to risk raise or promotion:
|Afraid of what the boss might think:
|Afraid I would lose my job:
How to Bring the Beach Back to the Business
With employees so reluctant to risk their jobs and take essential time away from work to recover, employers have to come to terms that making their workplaces vacation friendly has to be a cultural-level commitment. You don’t have to go so far as to give your people bonuses on top of their vacation pay, as the U.S. Travel Association does. But you can take steps in pushing forward the message that your vacation policy is that you’re serious about everyone taking meaningful and extended time away from the office.
Here are some ways you can close that gap between wish-list destination images on your employees’ computer screens and real pictures of their own get-away fun as their screensavers.
- Promote your commitment to your vacation policy in all your recruitment messaging. Additionally, be the one to volunteer that information in your candidate interviews. Don’t make them have to ask. You’re being more than informative. You’re establishing your employer brand as one that actively cares about all its people, including that candidate sitting before you.
- Make sure your managers know that they are expected to release their direct reports for vacations. Make their teams’ vacation usage a key measurement in their own performance reviews. When employees put in for vacation leave, make approval the norm. And there better be a very good reason why any vacation time application is denied.
- Make sure your managers go on vacation.
- Use up all your allotted vacation time yourself. Be the one to show the rest of your company that you can totally unplug and still have a job to return to when you get back.
- Help your employees afford better vacations by leveraging your buying power. As an employer, you represent a significant community of would-be vacationers, with both money and time to spend. This profile puts you in the position of being able access great deals that you can then pass on to your people. There are also services offering employers a membership program where employees can access high-quality vacation packages all over the world at significant discounts, along with other benefits such as emergency evacuation and travel concierge services. These are also excellent ways to provide opportunities for employees to have vacations as teams – a benefit that is so attractive to single Millennials who want to play with the people they work with.
- Disable their work-related devices while they are on vacation. Force them to unplug, even though the change will be frustrating for them the first couple of days. They’ll get used to it soon enough.
- Encourage your people to post their vacation pictures online in your internal employee internet hub. After they get back.
An all-hands-on-deck culture is awfully tempting to have, especially when you’re facing demanding quarterly objectives. And, in an economy where jobs are easy to lose, employees are loath to leave a vacant work station for even a few days. But still, the surveys and studies pile up to prove the point that rested, recovered, happy employees will bring to work a refreshed mind, given to creative problem-solving and getting along with the irritating coworker.
But someone has to take the first step and take the next vacation. How about you first?
Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at Martha@marthafinney.com.